Byline by M J Akbar: Facts, Truth and Strategy
Is there anything in common between an India-Pak cricket match in South Africa and China’s decision to give disputed status to Indian Kashmiris through disingenuous separate-sheet visas? Yes. Neither is a game.
China’s celebratory ascent into the top echelons of the modern world owes to a course correction by Deng Xiaoping, who recognised that Communism was injurious to China’s health. He replaced ideology with idealism and gave it pragmatic legs. The shift from pomposity to practical was based on an old Chinese principle: search for truth among facts. The only thing Maoist about China now is the portrait in Tiananmen Square and the mugshot on the currency notes.
China’s foreign policy is shaped by the same principle. It has looked long and hard at the facts of India, in particular at its defence. Thanks to the self-castration of a post-Bofors mentality, the hypocrisy of a system thirsty for bribes behind the burqa of bureaucratic-political piety, and the pseudo-morality of a defence minister who equates procrastination with self-protection, India’s defence capability is now at least a generation behind China’s in both conventional and nuclear warfare.
When an Indian air chief promises to bring his capability up to speed in a potential war zone like Arunachal Pradesh he is talking of what might happen by 2018 if all goes well. Make that a very big if. The Indian Air Force has been whittled down to a statistical accident. Our artillery has a goodwill-inventory. The communication infrastructure necessary to back up a fighting unit is waiting for the dust to be cleaned from the cover of the files.
China assessed Indian vulnerability years ago, and signalled its mood on the eve of President Hu Jintao’s last state visit, generally a time when states seek to stress points of mutual agreement. Instead, the then Chinese ambassador in Delhi chose to dwell on Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh, called Southern Tibet by Beijing. It was deliberate, calculated provocation to which Delhi responded with its familiar waffle.
The border provocations of 2009 have evoked a very queer reaction from National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan. He said, in defence of the Chinese, that the infringements had not increased beyond the normal. This begs a question: what is the normal level of infringements? A couple of hundred yards here or there – or, perhaps, there rather than here.
Jawaharlal Nehru once made the mistake of telling Parliament that the disputed territory on the China border was all rock and wasteland. In 1962 China proved how much it valued wasteland. Has China begun another “Mission Creep” which seeks to change facts on the ground so that the truth can be refashioned in fertile Delhi?
I do not believe that China wants war with India. The raison d’être of the post-Communist Communist Party is the promise, to its people, of stability. Stability is the cocoon in which economic growth can be spun. War would destabilise the Chinese stock exchange, if nothing else.
China also wants trade with India, now close to $60 billion. It is a useful hedge at a time of recession in the West. Moreover, the Indian market is undemanding. Wal-Mart will not accept toxic lead in toys, and American media do raise a typhoon if Chinese cat food ends up killing the cat. But the Delhi trader does not really care if the rows of Chinese Ganesh idols have been spray painted with death-dealing gamma rays as long as he can sell them for twice the price he paid. They must be laughing all the way from Shanghai to Lhasa.
The laughter in Beijing is probably restricted to the great debate on India’s nuclear tests. It takes courage, more than freedom, to pursue an argument on the most serious element of our defence spread through press conferences, the preferred methodology of both the plaintiff and the accused. If the eminent scientists who believe that the yield in 1998 was too low and India needs to test further are getting a hearing it is only because of their eminence, their knowledge [they are the hands-on people who actually created the nuclear deterrent] and their transparent sincerity. If they have no case, as a belligerent government [denied the right to test by the Indo-US nuclear deal] believes, then they have been utterly irresponsible. Why doesn’t the government accuse them of treason and bring them before the courts? They have shaken the nation’s conviction in its core assets and given comfort to the enemy. The government cannot clear doubts by a show of hands from within the establishment. It needs, at the very least, an independent enquiry.
There is a rational reason why China has decided to exploit Indian weaknesses and contradictions through rhetoric and provocative gestures on the border and in its Delhi embassy. It seeks to keep India off-balance, to the extent it can, at a time of great existential discomfort for its ally Pakistan.
Pakistan has always sought Chinese help in its confrontation with India. China has given it, although never to the point where it becomes counter-productive. The games theory in Islamabad and Beijing surely is that if Pakistan has to worry about two fronts, then, at the very least, so should India. Our weakness becomes an opportunity for China and an invitation to Pakistan. Witness the latter’s supreme indifference to concerns about the Lashkar e Tayyaba. A New York Times report published on 30 September could not be more categorical: “Ten months after the devastating attacks in Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, the group behind the assault remains largely intact and determined to strike India again, according to current and former members of the group, Lashkar e Tayyaba, and intelligence officials. Despite pledges from Pakistan to dismantle groups operating on its soil, and the arrest of a handful of operatives, Lashkar has persisted, even flourished…”
Pakistan cannot find Lashkar operatives planning another attack, but the New York Times can.
Nothing in the equation between India and Pakistan is a game, unless you include war in the list of games. Even cricket has become a war by other means. But that is another story, suitable for some future column.